WATERVILLE — In an effort to meet the needs of a growing at-risk population, MaineGeneral has expanded its harm reduction program to the Thayer Center for Health, providing needle exchange and other services to those who need it.

Emilie van Eeghen, chief behavioral health officer for MaineGeneral Health, said the organization’s first needle exchange program began in 2004 in Augusta. She said the hospital has provided many services to a population that is at high risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C.

The new Next Step Needle Exchange, which officially opened March 2 at Thayer on the Terrace level, is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays.

In addition to offering the needle exchange program, van Eeghen said, the program provides counseling services, anonymous HIV and hepatitis C testing, supplies to practice safe sex, overdose prevention and naloxone education, and referrals to primary care, substance use treatment, recovery resources and other services. All the services are free and anonymous.

She described the population that would use these services as “very high risk” with “a lot of co-occurring mental illnesses and co-occurring medical conditions.”

Since 2004, the Augusta location has exchanged more than 597,000 needles with nearly 800 different individuals. In 2017 alone, the Augusta location collected more than 123,000 needles.

“This program has been built over time, and more and more people access the service,” she said.

Van Eeghen said the need to expand the program into Waterville was apparent, since many of the clients coming to Augusta are located in the greater Waterville area.

“Basically we looked at the volume of needles we exchange and we looked at the demographics of where people are coming from to access it,” she said. “A number of people were coming from the greater Waterville area down to Augusta. We could better serve their needs and better connect them to primary care if we were in their community.”

The program is funded by a number of different organizations, including MaineGeneral itself, United Way of Kennebec Valley, and the Downeast Aids Network. Van Eeghen said the United Way of Mid Maine and the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation recently became partners, which allowed the program to expand into Waterville. Federal and state funds do not support the needle exchange program, she said.

While the Waterville location is open only four hours a week, van Eeghen said, the Augusta location is open six hours a week: from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

The program’s existence is spread by word of mouth by those who need it. The Waterville location has had only a few people come in to use the services, but van Eeghan expects the number to grow to match the numbers in Augusta.

“We have begun to serve some clients in Waterville, but we are only now just getting a lot of word out there,” she said. “The community of people at high risk share this information, so people are beginning to know about it and beginning to come.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

 

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